An Afghan teenager’s journey to safety
âEverything here is difficult. For everyone, but especially refugee children like me, alone.
When Ali *, 16, first arrived in Greece two years ago, he had already been arrested several times for trying to cross European borders to join his older brother, who had invited him to come. live with him in Germany.
While awaiting a response to his call for reunification, Ali moved into an apartment in Athens for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The building is managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which also provides social workers, legal assistance, psychological counseling, life skills classes and other support for young residents. There, Ali spends time with other teenagers like himself, receives the care he needs, attends a local high school, and learns to live independently.
Ali’s family was originally from Afghanistan, but he was born in Iran, where Afghan refugees and their children are often denied education, jobs, health care and even freedom of movement.
Refugees who hope to be safe from violence in their country of origin are instead exposed to forced labor, forced eviction and forced family separation. And they face ill-treatment and physical abuse in Iranian detention and deportation centers.
Like most Afghans living in Iran, Ali did not have identity papers, so he could not go to school. He started working to support his family when he was only nine years old.
âI worked 15 to 16 hours a day. I worked like this for five years. It wasn’t fun. “
When Ali’s father died, his family was left with nothing. âFor two or three months, my mother and I slept in a park,â he recalls. âThat’s why I had to start working.
For two or three months, my mother and I slept in a park. That’s why I had to start working.
Without papers, Ali had virtually no rights in Iran, so he had no choice but to leave the country with his married sister and family.
Even though he was only a young teenager, he was determined to make a fresh start. âI tried to get to Greece eight times across the Evros River. Each time, the Greek police would catch me and deport me to Turkey.
Ali remembers a particularly precarious attempt to cross: âThe boat sank and we had to swim across the river. I can swim but my sister doesn’t, so I took her hand and started swimming.
âMy sister was pulling me down. It was very difficult. It was like that for about an hour; I sank, I went underwater, then I went up. Turkish police arrested me and sent me back to Turkey.
It took Ali and his sister four months until they finally arrived in Greece. But shortly after their arrival, they were separated. His sister was taken to a family camp with her husband and children, while Ali – because he was a minor who arrived without parents – remained at Fylakio, a detention center for newly arrived migrants, where he stayed for a whole year.
Ali had a hard time in Fylakio, and the memories still give him bad dreams today. “In the eveningâ¦[the social workers] go home, and the police are the only ones there. he remembers. âWhen the children were playing football in our neighborhood, the police would come and beat us. “
The boat sank and we had to swim across the river. I can swim but my sister doesn’t, so I took her hand and started swimming.
After Fylakio, Ali was transferred to a hotel used as temporary accommodation for unaccompanied children. It was then that he finally found a home in the independent living apartments run by IRC in Athens. He has been living there since January and is happy that someone is taking care of him. âEveryone here is fine,â he said. “Whatever I need, they help me.”
The only thing missing, he says, is his family.
âMy sister has been here for two years and I barely saw her once. I would like to reunite my family one day: my mother, my brother and my sister. It would be really good. “
Since moving into the apartments, Ali has received the good news that he has been accepted for family reunification with his brother in Cologne, Germany. âI am happy and I want to cry at the same time!
While waiting for his departure day, Ali is studying at school to improve his English and uses an app on his phone to learn German. He also participates in outdoor activities and classes in cooking, budgeting, interpersonal communication and other life skills organized by IRC staff. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring Athens with his friends, and he navigates the city with confidence.
Ali is delighted to be reunited with his brother and has high hopes for his future in Germany. âI want to be an auto mechanic or a motorcycle mechanic,â he says.
I would like to reunite my family one day: my mother, my brother and my sister. It would be really good.
This meeting cannot come soon enough. Ali’s bad experiences with the police on his trip made him anxious to leave Greece.
âI only have bad dreams here. I am afraid of the police. In Germany, I will not be afraid. I will have my brother with me.
* Name has been changed to protect his identity
A version of this story was originally published by IRC-UK.